Sunday, 15 March 2009

Hillsborough 20th Anniversary

There's a piece in today's Observer about the Hillsborough Disaster. Twenty years on and countless eyewitness accounts later, this is still almost unbearably moving. It's shocking too - the anecdote about the policeman telling survivors not to use an advertising hoarding as a stretcher because they were 'vandalizing the stadium' took my breath away.

The tragedy, seen retrospectively, was a watershed in British politics. In its wake, it became unacceptable (or, for more cynical parties, inexpedient) to make Mail-like generalisations about the behavioural tendencies of large groups of people. The article makes it abundantly clear that the disaster was not attended to sufficiently because the police assumed that there had been crowd violence. And yet crowd trouble itself was less the result of a spontaneous desire to fight than it was a conduit for the frustrations of a Britain that was, successively, broke and dominated by an uninclusive monetarist attitude as it moved through the 1970s and 1980s. The old cliché that rave culture put the lid on hooliganism by providing a comparable, and yet nonviolent, outlet for the desire to be part of a mass movement is more true than the noun at the beginning of this sentence would have you believe: very few people were 'fighting just for the sake of fighting'.

If crimes tell us more than anything else about our culture, can disasters be said to do the same thing? Much ink has been used describing the links between the series of rail tragedies around the turn of the Millenium and the negligence of the Blairite government. Hillsborough, along with the Zeebrugge ferry sinking, are the totemic catastrophes of the Thatcher era. The latter resulted from the attitude that time is money: the boat's bow doors were not secured before departure, provoking the investigating judge to mention a 'disease of sloppiness'. The same carelessness was evident at Hillsborough, but there were clearly other complicating factors. Thatcher declared her intentions towards football supporters with her notorious ID card scheme and one club - Luton Town, owned by the commitedly neo-Tory David Evans - had already made moves to implement it. Fences were put up at the majority of grounds, as if the players, rather than opposing supporters, were the object of aggression. Travelling fans were locked in cramped football specials to ferry them to and from away games. There was little consideration shown for the large majority of fans who did not participate in disorder, and a blanket lack of willing to engage with the social problems that motivated those who did.

On the subject of social problems, the fact that the tragedy occurred in South Yorkshire is fairly unavoidable. Taylor's report bore out the suspicion that inept, inconsiderate policing was largely to blame for what happened. The S.Y. force in 1989 was staffed largely by veterans of the Miners' Strike, and the conflict had clearly imbued the organisation with a siege mentality. As the article, like many before it, shows, the police were utterly incapable of interpreting the events as anything but violence and disorder. By the time they performed the necessary measures, it was far, far too late.

The public response is all that remains in my memory from that day - I was only eight years old. I didn't find out about Kelvin MacKenzie's sociopathic line on it all until much later on. The Sun's reportage on Hillsborough is arguably the biggest misjudgment in British journalism since Rothermere's backing of the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, and the paper's sales on Merseyside are still significantly lower than in the rest of the United Kingdom. That MacKenzie has made sporadic attempts to defend his editorial choices that week tells us a lot about the ongoing pervasiveness of Thatcherism.

I began going to football the following year. The fences were still up at Feethams, but the attitudes surrounding football had already begun to change. Although I've seen them get unnecessarily baton-happy on a few occasions, the police are now generally responsible and cooperative when it comes to crowd management at football. More importantly, the popular and political determination that nothing of the sort should ever happen again is ongoing. Articles like this contribute to that will.

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